Health & Fitness

Female runners flock to half marathons for challenge, camaraderie

Fleet Feet female runners train Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015, on the American River Parkway in Gold River in preparation for the Nike Women’s half marathon in San Francisco on Oct. 18.
Fleet Feet female runners train Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015, on the American River Parkway in Gold River in preparation for the Nike Women’s half marathon in San Francisco on Oct. 18. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Nina Bonfield has an uncommon problem – too many Tiffany necklaces.

Each one originally held a charm engraved with the Nike Women’s Half Marathon logo. She earned them by completing the 13.1-mile race in San Francisco – prizes handed out by race organizers to finishers. Ten races later, Bonfield has consolidated her charms onto one jingling bracelet, leaving a pile of bare but expensive silver chains.

For Bonfield, the charms remind her of a tough training period and the girlfriends that got her through it. “We run because of the friendships we find in running groups,” she said. “The first time you finish (a half marathon) you think, ‘Wow, I did it’ – and then you do more.”

Female runners increasingly are tackling half marathons – a distance they say is challenging enough to keep them physically fit but not so demanding that it compromises their work or time with their families. At the Urban Cow half marathon in William Land Park on Sunday, about 2,700 of the roughly 4,000 expected racers – or 68 percent – will be women. The race has reliably drawn about twice as many women as men for the past few years, organizers said.

Nationally, about 1.2 million women finished a half marathon last year – a record high, according to Running USA, a nonprofit organization that gathers data on running events.

Bonfield, 46, long-legged with a waist-length ponytail, is training for her 11th Nike half marathon (her 19th half marathon overall), which she’ll run Oct. 18. She could prepare on her own but chooses to run with the Fleet Feet Sacramento training group – a community of about 200 women who support one another in the weeks before race day with nutrition tips, trail chatter and the occasional shove out the door.

“It’s really a great distance because you can do it,” said Cathy McEfee, 55, who is training for her eighth half marathon and helping her daughter run her first. “It’s not as hard on your body as a full (marathon). ... It’s women running together, and it’s really fun.”

Women who run with friends call their training groups “better than therapy” and “a book club on feet” – a space to have conversations that range from sacred to profane. Recently, Bonfield, whose daughter left for college six weeks ago, has been seeking comfort from female runners who felt a similar sense of loss when their children moved out.

Jan Sweeney, longtime runner and co-owner of Fleet Feet Sacramento, calls her training mates her “posse of running mom-friends,” and credits them for getting her out of bed for early morning runs. “We run so we can drink wine and eat dessert and still stay healthy for our families,” she said. “We can catch up with each other, and we have hours to do it. We pretty much don’t stop talking the entire time.”

Like many other women, Bonfield and Sweeney – who both have completed full marathons in the past – have chosen to focus solely on half marathons.

Overall, there has been a 40 percent increase in half marathon registration nationally since 2010. The U.S. hosted 2,200 half marathons last year, and, for the first time, more than 2 million runners completed that distance. Women made up 61 percent of those finishers – up from 57 percent in 2009, according to statistics from Running USA. For full marathons, women made up 43 percent of finishers.

The growing half marathon numbers can be credited to women training in flocks, Sweeney said. Fleet Feet’s training groups for local half marathons such as the Urban Cow and the Shamrock’n Half are about 80 percent female. For every 200 women who finish a race together, another hundred daughters, sisters, mothers and friends may get roped in the next time around, she said.

Men are more likely to train alone and put in the hours for a full marathon, while women will seek the social atmosphere and time flexibility of the half marathon, said Rich Harshbarger, CEO of Running USA. It’s a distance that’s accessible to beginners, and is often seen as a next step up from a 5K or a 10K.

“We’re definitely seeing that women are the second boom of running – and we’re seeing that mostly in the half marathon distance,” Harshbarger said. “Women are wanting to reclaim their athleticism and also have a little fun, and it’s not as intimidating in the shorter distances.”

At a recent Fleet Feet session on the American River Parkway, women trained at vastly different paces – some gritted their teeth as they flew down the trail while others smiled and cruised. Each time a swifter runner passed, the women exchanged whoops and hollers of encouragement.

Still, running a half marathon is no walk in the park. Fleet Feet trainers recommend up to 25 miles of running over four to five days each week during a 10-week period to prepare for the long-distance race. The training group suggests women train for six to 10 hours per week.

“That half distance is perfect,” Sweeney said. “It gets you out of your comfort zone and it keeps you fit, but it doesn’t take over your life.”

The running industry has taken notice of the trend. HalfMarathons.net, a popular blog among 13-mile racers, recently listed its 14 favorite female-inspired half marathons, noting that many more have popped up in recent years. Among the most popular are the Divas half marathons – where stations offering feather boas and tiaras sprinkle the course – as well as the Disney-sponsored Princess and Tinkerbell half marathons.

Women’s races tend to inspire flourishes not seen in other road races, Bonfield said. Past editions of the Nike women’s half have featured red-carpet finishes, tuxedo-clad firefighters and other perks including Neutrogena wipes, orange slices and those Tiffany necklaces.

Goodies aside, many of the race’s 25,000 participants are there just to stay healthy and have fun, Bonfield said. She’ll be going to San Francisco a night early to spend time with a girlfriend, but many of the women in the Fleet Feet training group will board a bus together in the early hours of race day – sharing hot cocoa on the way there and champagne on the way back.

As far as the race itself goes, Bonfield isn’t worried. Maybe she’ll beat her 2013 best of two hours and five minutes; maybe she won’t. More than anything, she’s in it for the energy buzz at the starting line and the endorphin rush at the end – not to mention the meditative feeling of finding her cadence in between.

“The S.F. half is a huge accomplishment and (finishers) should feel proud,” she said. “It’s plenty challenging, and it’s so much fun. That really is the bottom line.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola

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